Close encounters of The Second Woman

Blending new wave cinema, performance art and slow TV, The Second Woman is endurance theatre at its most intimate.

At any point in The Second Woman’s day-long duration, audiences will find Nat Randall in a room, dressed and lit in red. She performs a short scene with a man she’s never met; they play two characters who know each other intimately. Things come to a head, he leaves, and the scene repeats with a new stranger. Then repeats. And repeats.

Conceived by Randall and co-creator Anna Breckon, The Second Woman combines Randall’s experience in participatory performance with Breckon’s background in film and queer theory. “Men and male characters in the past have had emotional depth and an important stronghold in film as centrepoints for narrative,” Randall says of the work’s inspiration. “What we have seen in the past are very shallow female characters, or interchangeable female faces and female bodies and female characters.”

In The Second Woman that stereotype is inverted as man after man walks through the door to join Randall. A grander pattern emerges, as over 24 hours an “intersectional man” appears from the disparate mass, blurring into one. “It was important for this work to have a woman centred in the piece, but what it does on a functional level is it complicates what masculinity looks like,” Randall says. “It’s also quite entertaining – you get to see difference through sameness, and various trends that come out every time you do it in each city, each country, there’s a [different] cultural reveal that might occur.”

Nat Randall embraces one of her many co-stars in The Second Woman (Photo: Heidrun Lohr)
Nat Randall embraces one of her many co-stars (Photo: Heidrun Lohr)

For the viewer, the combination of repetition and subversion can prove hypnotic. “Because there is that repetition model, the audience are kind of ahead of the men in different ways. What the pleasure in the watching is the nuance – you’ve heard the script many times before but it’s about how people engage.

“As it gets on, my intuition is much more acute – I would say by the sixth hour,” she says of her ability to roll with whoever comes through the door next. “But I do feel when the body’s under a certain type of fatigue and pressure you’re making certain instinctual decisions on the fly.”

Heightening Randall’s performance are Breckon and camera operator EO Gill, as they create a filmic version of the scene – influenced by the likes of John Cassavetes, Wong Kar-Wai and John Waters – in real time. “The curation of the six cameras in operation is all Anna’s work, so what she brought to the fore is the close-up, the minute expression, all of the nuance that sometimes we don’t experience when we’re in the theatre.”

Adelaide Festival has hosted marathon performances before, from Roman Tragedies in 2014 to the James plays in 2016, but The Second Woman is unique in both its intimacy and format. It’s also perfectly placed to tap into audiences whose viewing habits are been re-trained by binge watching and ‘slow TV’. “What we find with this piece is that when people are dealing with a singular entity like a Netflix episode, there is a finite individual model that’s part of a greater series.

Nat Randall performs in The Second Woman (Photo: Heidrun Lohr)
Cameras blur the gap between stage and screen (Photo: Heidrun Lohr)

“People can say, ‘Yes I can stay for another 15 … then maybe another one, and another one’. Similar to a Netflix binge, it does have a certain element of ‘Oh I’ll just see one more’. ‘Let’s see how this one plays out’.”

Having intrigued audiences at Dark MOFO, Next Wave and at Taiwan’s National Kaohsiung Center for the Arts, The Second Woman’s Adelaide run marks its fifth, and, perhaps, final Australian performance. “It gets better every time,” Randall says. “We discovered the piece was much more about what it might reveal about men in the world, and performance of masculinity in relation to women. I don’t think we realised at the time that it would be so engaging, or reveal cultural truths about how we engage with each other in the world.”

The show arrives in Adelaide at a time of heightened discussion about the nature of the performance space, and how forms of gendered power exist within it. So does Randall feel these men act differently when they enter her performance space?

“I would say this piece produces and reveals a type of barrier pushing from the men, and also myself,” she says, mentioning that she and Breckon are backed by an entirely female and non-binary creative team that takes care to always be in control.

“Particularly if the men are maybe crossing my boundaries, I’ll cross theirs.”

The Second Woman
Sunday, March 10 to Monday, March 11 (4pm–4pm)
Space Theatre
adelaidefestival.com.au

Header image:
Heidrun Lohr

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